A Big Adventure: Life and work of Slab Boys writer John Patrick Byrne

The exhibition is the first retrospective of the Scottish artist and playwright's work in more than two decades.

A Big Adventure: Exhibition celebrating work of John Patrick Byrne opens at Kelvingrove Art Gallery Martin Shields
Byrne has continued to work, paint and create into his 80s.

An exhibition charting the illustrious career of Paisley-born artist John Patrick Byrne opens on Friday.

The exhibition, named A Big Adventure, will open at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and is the first retrospective of the modern Scottish artist, playwright, and theatre maker for more than two decades.

Byrne, 82, has continued to work, paint and create plays and A Big Adventure is said to encapsulate the energy, excitement and diversity of his work, while looking back on his life.

“It’s been a real pleasure working with Glasgow Museums on this retrospective,” he said.

“I’ve been in and out of Kelvingrove my whole life. It’s a delight to be reunited with works I’ve not seen in years, especially as they are hanging on the walls of a place I and so many people love.”

Comprised of seven sections, the exhibition opens with a brief look at his early life, growing up in Paisley and working as a slab boy, mixing paint for the designers at AF Stoddard & Co carpet factory after leaving school. 

In 1958, he was accepted to study at the Glasgow School of Art. Despite having to re-sit his first year Byrne went on to win the Newbery Medal for best final year student and the Bellahouston travelling scholarship, which allowed him to study in Italy.

He returned to AF Stoddard & Co. as a carpet designer, teaching evening classes at the Glasgow School of Art and during this time, he sent a small painting to London’s Portal Gallery, pretending it was the work of his father. 

Curator Martin Craig (Photograph by Martin Shields)
Curator Martin Craig (Photograph by Martin Shields)

This provided the inspiration for his play, The Slab Boys, which has been performed around the world, including a 1983 debut in New York that included performances by then-unknown actors Kevin Bacon, Sean Penn, and Val Kilmer.

He has also designed sets and written several plays, and went on to achieve further literary success, writing two dramas – Tutti Frutti and Your Cheatin Heart – credited for launching the careers of Scottish superstar Robbie Coltraine and Emma Thompson.

A Big Adventure also delves into his passion for music as well as writing and his influence on Scottish culture through his collaborations with other artistic giants.

Among the exhibition’s main attractions is a room displaying over 40 self-portraits, the most ever displayed at one time, spanning Byrne’s whole career.

Byrne added: “I’m glad that with the help of so many friends who’ve loaned artworks we’ve been able to showcase a really broad range, from murals to storyboards and everything in-between. I suppose you could say it tells much of my life story. I hope visitors enjoy it, seeing art should be fun. For me it’s certainly been a fun, Big Adventure all these years.” 

Bailie Annette Christie, chair of Glasgow Life, said: “John Byrne is quite simply a true Scottish cultural colossus. This captivating new exhibition, the first at Kelvingrove since 2019, proudly celebrates one of Scotland’s most successful sons and shows why he is rightly considered one of the most gifted artists of the last 70 years.

“Byrne’s story is an inspirational one. He came from a working-class background, had many jobs before embarking on a successful artistic career and often talks of the importance of visiting the library and museums while growing up. We hope this exhibition is a visual feast for many and may provide a similar spark for future generations of Scottish artists and writers.”

Martin Craig, curator of art post 1945 at Glasgow Life Museums, who put the exhibition together, said: “It’s been an absolute joy working with John on this exhibition. I’ve always been a fan, but learning more about his work, getting to know the man himself and listening to what friends and family have to say, I’m in awe.

“This project started pre-pandemic and with so many works in private collections Covid brought it’s challenges. The Fine Art Society have been amazing, and of course as soon as you say it’s for John everyone is more than happy to help.

“Words like icon and genius can be overused, but in John’s case they are perfectly apt. He is, without question, one of the most important artists of the last 70 years and he is so prolific. We could have filled the exhibition space five times over. A Big Adventure is filled to the gunnels with striking artwork, I hope it captures the anarchic, jubilation and vastness of John’s life and career.”

Tickets are £7.50, concession £5, children under 16 go free.